When you go to visit Rick’s Atomic Cafe, make sure to print out directions: Not only is this dive in a big office park, but the office park is behind another office park, in a nexus of anonymous buildings on the northern edge of John Wayne Airport. To find Rick’s, look for the fat-Italian-man statue and the neon “OPEN” sign, as no other indicators distinguish the restaurant from its chiropractor neighbors. And when you finally park, do so in the spaces marked as belonging to No. 113, lest the other businesses call a tow truck—it’s never happened to me, but better safe than sorry.
Rick’s Atomic Cafe is worth the hassles, an unassuming gem, a stunner of a mom-and-pop diner better-suited to Portland or Berkeley than a drab office complex. Running the place almost always by himself is Rick , whose black-framed glasses, close-cropped haircut and wiry body make him look more like a Rust Belt steelworker than the soft-spoken gourmand he is. The back of each menu features his manifesto for local produce, and that commitment shows in the entrées and his service.
Take a recent breakfast. I ordered an omelet—long things with the airiness and shape of a crepe—and sat down in what was probably the reception area of a previous tenant. Rick brought me fresh-squeezed orange juice, which was slightly pulpy, with the unmistakable tang of organic citrus. Nina Simone cooed over the speakers.
“I’m going to sauté your onions and jalapeños a bit—is that okay?” Rick asked across the counter. Of course it was. He chopped everything to order and brought out the meal after a couple of minutes. “Sorry that it took a bit longer than usual,” he said—apparently, he ran out of home fries and whipped up a fresh batch on the spot.
Omelets are usually little better than belly stuffers, but here was an omelet of nuance: jalapeños nearly caramelized like their onion neighbors, cheese melted yet firm, chorizo delightfully oily. And the burrito I ordered as takeout was even better—named the Atomic but downright soothing in its medley of cooked zucchini, pinto beans and melted cheese. I usually sneer at veggie burritos, but if there were more like Rick’s, I could swear off the carne asada for a week.
Rick plans to expand the menu in a couple of weeks—more paninis, he says, because eaters love them. He nearly sighed while describing a red-pepper spread he was planning to unveil. An ascending jet screamed outside, barely audible in this oasis. And did I mention the daily Twitter specials? Everybody: Come to Rick’s.
Rick’s Atomic Cafe, 3100 Airway Ave., Ste. 113, Costa Mesa, (714) 825-0570; twitter.com/ricksatomiccafe.
This column appeared in print as “Office Park Oasis.”